Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russians React to IMF Warning that Unemployed Migrants May Turn to Crime

Paul Goble

Kuressaare, November 18 – The International Monetary Fund has told the Russian government that guest workers who lose their jobs in the current economic crisis may turn to crime, a warning that is almost certainly exacerbating interethnic tensions among some groups even though there is relatively little evidence so far to support it.
On the one hand, even when migrant workers from Central Asia or the Caucasus lose their jobs in sectors hard hit by the crisis, they often are able to find work albeit often at lower pay in other areas of the economy at rates far greater than those displayed by ethnic Russian natives. As a result, relatively few turn to crime.
But on the other, many ethnic Russians, particularly those who listen to xenophobic groups like the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), are only too eager to believe that most migrants are potential criminals, and some Russians reportedly are buying guns in order to be in a position to defend themselves against a migrant onslaught.
And that pattern is points toward the appearance of a potentially explosive situation at some point in the future, especially in cities like Moscow where there are sizeable and easily identifiable migrant groups and where many Russians who have lost or are at risk of losing their jobs are all too ready to blame others, including migrants, for their own woes.
Yesterday, an article in “Komsomol’skaya Pravda” not only reported the IMF’s warning, which it said had been given to other East European countries, but also provided data and the comments of experts which suggest that so far at least that warning, while widely believed in the Russian Federation, is almost certainly overstated (www.kp.ru/daily/24198.5/404342/print/).
The paper noted that Russian citizens committed 97.8 percent of all crimes registered in the country last year, with foreigners, including guest workers, responsible for only 2.8 percent of the 1.3 million cases. But it did note that crimes by guest workers in Moscow had risen from 38 per day in 2006 to 44 per day so far this year, an increase but not a staggering one.
At the same time, however, the paper cited interior ministry statistics that Russian citizens committed 5.3 percent fewer crimes against foreigners during the first nine months of 2008 than they did in the same period a year ago but that foreigners committed 7.7 percent more against Russians over the same period.
Many migrants work in sectors like construction where layoffs have been heavy, but they neither return to their homelands where Moscow experts say the economic situation is even worse than in Russia or turn to crime in large numbers, as the IMF has suggested. Instead, because they need the money, they often find other jobs, albeit ones with lower wages.
Yevgeny Gontmakher, who heads the Center for Social Policy at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Economics, told “Komsomol’skaya Pravda” that “in comparison to Russians, foreign workers [who are laid off] quickly find themselves positions in other branches.” Consequently, “one should not expect a rise in crime.”
Overwhelmingly, he continued, the migrants came to Russia “not to steal but to work.” Now they may earn less but that won’t change things in this regard. And, Gontmakher added significantly, the migrant workers “perfectly well now the negative attitude of society to their presence” and what could happen to them if they turned to crime.
Unfortunately, the Russian media’s increasing proclivity to identify those arrested for crimes by nationality – a practice the Duma failed to ban earlier this year – has fueled xenophobic attitudes in some less well-educated and economically well-off groups, as have the increasingly high profile actions of groups like DPNI and its allies.
And there is unconfirmed anecdotal evidence that some Russians are now sufficiently fearful of a migrant-driven crime wave that they are purchasing weapons to “defend” themselves, a pattern that may help explain why attacks on non-Russians although less numerous of late are often more violent (kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2008/11/17/62219.shtml).
More useful for evaluating Russian attitudes in this regard are the results of a Levada Center poll taken in mid-October but posted online only today concerning the state of inter-ethnic attitudes among various social and economic groups in the Russian Federation (www.levada.ru/press/2008111801.html).
In discussing the poll’s findings, the center’s Leonid Sedov said that they suggested that “the level of ethnic phobias among Russians is not so dramatic as it might seem” but that they are more frequently found among those who have suffered economic reverses, a pattern that could prove significant if the economic situation continues to decline.
And the results he presented suggests that while more than half of Russians favor restricting the arrival of new migrants, many fewer at least at the present time favor expelling them or taking direct action against them, however frequently nationalist groups argue that this should be done so that “Russian jobs and money will go to Russians.”

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